The guards at the end of the hall immediately snapped to attention upon noticing the black-robed figure approaching. Although the robes the individual wore hid all distinguishing features, the guards recognized who it was without so much as a second glance. It was fear, and a little common sense, that dictated their gesture of respect. Unpleasant things happened to those who displeased this man. The fact that their lord held this dark figure’s abilities in high regard also warranted some display.
He stopped at the doors to Lord Myros’ study and waited, arms clasped within the sleeves of his velvet-soft robes, as one of the guards entered the study to inform his master of his guest’s arrival. A moment later, the guard exited the study. “My Lord Myros will see you now,” he announced in a deep voice. Without so much as a gesture of acknowledgement, the visitor entered.
It was a moderately sized study, but it more than made up for its lack of space with the quality of the collection of books Lord Myros had acquired over the years. There were first editions of some of the finest books dealing with the art of war, and second or third editions of books dealing with such varied topics as governing, economics, and literature.
In the center of the room sat a round oak table of the finest quality and around this were placed five exquisite high-backed chairs upholstered in dark purple velvet. A fireplace set in the wall opposite the entrance to the study was happily alight with a fire that was just now beginning to burn down. The candles in the candelabras were extinguished, thus casting the room into dancing shadows made by the firelight.
Lord Myros sat in a sixth finely crafted chair by the fireplace, sipping brandy. He made sure that he and his visitor were alone before speaking. “Well, Celeste,” he said, staring into the fireplace, “are the rumors true?”
Celeste regarded Myros for a moment before answering. In his early forties, Myros looked like a man ten years his junior. His trim, fit body bore the scars of a lifetime of battle. Myros had long since lost count of the skirmishes and petty wars he had fought in. His blond hair was cut close in the military style. His blue eyes could be alive with emotion one moment, and as cold as ice the next. He was known for his ruthlessness towards his enemies, and his generosity towards his friends. A valuable ally, Celeste thought. Or a dangerous enemy.
“I don’t have all night,” he said sharply.
“Yes, my lord,” she replied. “I was merely sorting out pertinent facts. To answer thy question, my lord, Baranur is rife with talk of an impending Bichanese invasion. The general consensus among the king’s advisors is that Baranur should attack Bichu first before Bichu’s forces are concentrated. King Haralan hath been giving this line of reasoning serious thought–”
Myros laughed uproariously. “The fool! The Bichanese will cut him to pieces!”
“If I may continue, my lord,” she said icily. Celeste was not fond of interruptions. “There are two in Baranur who advise against attacking Bichu. The first is Duke Clifton Dargon. His Grace believeth most strongly that Bichu would never attack Baranur in the face of that nation’s powerful navy. He also hath an earnest desire to avoid war. The second is Haralan’s Knight Commander, Sir Edward Sothos. Sir Edward thinks it ludicrous to attack Bichu for purely military reasons, not the least of which is the unenviable task of supplying an army so far from home.”
“The combined efforts of both of these powerful and respected men, particularly Duke Dargon, hath thus far prevented any conflict.”
“So Edward is Haralan’s Knight Commander, eh?” Myros muttered to himself.
“You said something, my lord?”
“Nothing of importance. What of Bichu? What are they planning?” he asked.
“Regretfully, my lord, my scrying powers cannot reach such a far off land. Only the Bichanese know what they are planning.”
Myros rose and began pacing, pondering possible courses of action. After several minutes of this, he set his brandy down on the table and turned to face Celeste. “I think it’s time we paid a visit to Baranur. I’d like to see how my dear friend Edward is faring. You will come as well, of course.”
“Of course, my lord,” she said. Both knew that the price Celeste would ask would be high.
Baroness Elaine Myros strolled the battlements in the warm Yuli breeze. She paused in her wanderings to take in the beauty of the sunset. The cloudless sky was crimson red. Elaine had never seen the sky this color. What does it portend? she thought.
“There you are, my dear,” Baron Myros said.
She whirled around, a startled look on her face. “Corneilious!” she said. “You frightened me!”
“I apologize, Elaine. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t realize you so deeply in thought. What’s troubling you?”
“Are you sure?” he asked dubiously.
“Yes,” she replied. “Really darling, there is nothing wrong. I was just enjoying the beauty of the sunset.”
“Ah. Well now that that’s cleared up, I have a surprise for you.”
“Oh? What is it?” she asked expectantly.
“We’re going on a trip to Baranur.”
“Baranur? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Not many in the Empire have. It’s a country about three months journey away. I have friends there, and I’d like to visit them. We haven’t seen each other in almost six years.”
“When are we leaving?”
“In about a week. It will take that long to organize things.”
“That should give me plenty of time to get ready,” she said. “Do you know much about Baranur?” she asked her husband.
“Some,” he said. “Why don’t we go to the study and I’ll see if I have any books dealing with it?”
“You should,” she said with a smile. “You have a book on just about everything.”
Myros laughed. “Shall we?” As the sun dipped below the mountains, Myros and his wife descended the steps to the courtyard arm in arm.
Others were discussing Myros’ planned visit to Baranur. An hour previously, Celeste had finished gathering the spell components she needed. Now she stood in front of a body length mirror. The mirror’s surface was a swirling, impenetrable grey mist. Celeste waited patiently.
After several minutes, the mist gradually began to calm and then faded entirely. The figure reflected in the mirror could have been Celeste but for the fact that it was a man. “Cho dakh, Primus,” Celeste said in greeting.
“Cho dakh, Celeste,” he replied in a voice that was barely above a whisper. “You have something to report?”
“Yes, Primus,” she answered. “Myros plans to journey to Magnus on the seventh of Sy.”
“Magnus?” he said, a faintly surprised look on his face. “A long journey. What dost Baron Myros wish to accomplish there?” he inquired.
“He claims he wishes to visit a friend residing there, Primus. From his tone, this friend is more likely an enemy. I suspect that Myros has other motives than simple revenge, Primus. Unfortunately, I know’st not what they are.”
The man in the mirror paused, considering options. Celeste waited in respectful silence. Finally after ten minutes of pondering, he spoke. “There is only one reason that I can determine that would be sufficient to cause Myros to undertake such an arduous trip. He is undoubtedly scheming some method of turning the strife between Baranur and Bichu to his advantage. Perhaps he seeks allies.” He nodded his head as if agreeing with himself. “Our Master must know of this. Thee hath done well, Celeste.”
“I thank thee for thy praise, Primus,” Celeste said humbly. “What are your instructions?”
A ghost of a smile crossed his lips. “Thee will go with Myros as thee hath no doubt already agreed. Thee may even keep his money.” His smile disappeared. “Remember where thy loyalties lie, Celeste.”
The mist reappeared and quickly faded. Celeste now gazed upon her own reflection. Icy fingers of fear gripped her heart. He knows! she thought. How could I have been so careless? She began shaking violently at the thought of what the Primus would do to her if she transgressed again.
I must remain calm. “Control,” she repeated to herself over and over again. Within a few minutes, to all outward appearances Celeste radiated complete control and competence. Inwardly, she was still terrified. She went to the table and mixed a potion that would help her sleep, and more importantly, would cause her not to dream. She drank her concoction and was asleep in moments.
The day dawned bright and clear. Myros stood on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. Preparations were almost complete. Myros’ bodyguard of fifty men were mounted and ready to move out. Celeste had arrived two hours ago. Myros and his advisors had been ready one hour ago. Elaine said she would be ready soon. “Elaine,” Myros called. “We’re ready to leave. Would you care to join us?”
“Just a few more minutes, Corneilious.”
Myros was ready to scream. He was just about to pack Elaine’s things for her when he was distracted by a commotion in the courtyard below. A messenger had just ridden through the gate and was demanding to see Baron Myros immediately. Myros’ aide was trying to explain that he could see the baron when His Lordship was ready. Myros let the argument continue until it came to the point when blow were about to be exchanged.
“Jordaan,” he called, “what is the problem?”
“A messenger to see you, my lord. He seems most anxious to speak with you.”
“So I gathered. Who have you come from?” he inquired of the messenger.
“I have come from His Imperial Majesty. I have instructions to deliver this message to you personally, Your Lordship.”
“Jordaan, show our guest to my study. I shall be there shortly.”
“Yes, my lord. This way, please.” Myros entered his quarters as the messenger was being shown to the study.
“A messenger has arrived from the Emperor,” he told Elaine.
“The Emperor? What could His Majesty want?”
“I have no idea. I’d best go and see him. Keep packing, dear. This shouldn’t take long.” Myros did have an idea of the message’s content. He hoped he was wrong.
He entered the study, his manner brisk. The messenger came over to greet him, but Myros dispensed with pleasantries. “Let me see it.” The messenger handed him the message without comment. Myros’ worst fears were true. The Emperor had learned of his impending departure for Baranur and had decided to appoint Myros as Ambassador to Baranur. His Imperial Majesty commanded Myros to determine which country should be supported in the upcoming war: Bichu or Baranur.
“I was instructed to wait for your reply, Your Lordship,” the messenger said.
“Inform the Emperor I most humbly accept.” The messenger nodded, then left Myros alone with his thoughts.
How did he find out? No one but my advisors and Celeste knew of this. She would not betray me; she has no reason to. The cold realization hit him that one of those in his inner circle of most trusted advisors had to have betrayed him.
He quickly ruled out Jordaan. He is absolutely loyal to me. But so are the others. Who is it? Celeste. She can find out. I’ll have her use her magic. I have three months before I get to Magnus. Plenty of time. Slowly, he turned from the table and exited the room.
When Myros entered the courtyard, Jordaan noticed something different about his liege. His eyes were like ice and his face a stone mask. The only time I have seen him this way was when we were in battle, he thought. What was in that dispatch?
Jordaan rode over to where Myros was mounting his horse. “Is everything all right, my lord?”
“Fine, Jordaan. Fine. Why do you ask?”
“No reason, my lord,” he replied carefully.
“Then let us be off.”
“Yes, my lord.” He turned in his saddle and ordered the column to move out. Flanked by the escort, Myros’ party rode out the gate and began the long journey to Baranur.